Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Shakespeare comes to life in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in a way I had not imagined when I studied his plays, read aloud his verse, or tried teaching uninterested students his inspired quotes. Although Hamnet is a fictionalized history of Shakespeare’s youth and married life, O’Farrell convincingly creates the missing historical pieces of his personal family grievances and, more importantly, his motivation to write

Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, better known as Anne Hathaway, is a key character in the story. O’Farrell decries the historical context of Agnes as an illiterate older woman who seduces a younger Will, and creates a feisty woman with a substantial dowry who falls in love with a young Latin tutor, whose glove-maker father is in debt. Although she is pregnant when they marry, Agnes has the reputation of being able to cure ills and see the future, and her family is wealthy.

Independent and fearless, she has her own window in the house, to dispense herbal cures to the locals who seek her out; when it is time for her to give birth to her first born, she packs a small bag and goes off into the woods. Her patience is tested living with the in-laws after marrying, and enduring Will’s struggle as he tries to find his true calling, while working as an assistant to his father and as a Latin tutor. Eventually, she conspires with her brother to send her husband to London to escape his father’s authoritative rule, hoping he will find more than the glove business to sustain him. Of course, he does, eventually becoming the writer of plays with a successful group of touring actors.

Shakespeare is not there when his son, Hamnet, a twin to Judith, is born, and he is not there when he dies. Agnes suffers alone until he returns, in time to bury the young boy, and his grief seems insignificant compared to hers, as he leaves for London again. Only later, when his famous play, “Hamlet,” is staged, does his grief pour out to Agnes and to his audience.

Hamnet is not the key character in the novel but he is O’Farrell’s inspiration for the story. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at eleven years old of the plague, and he wrote Hamlet soon after. The play seems more tragic when read in the context of losing a child. Reviewer Kate Kellaway says “It reads like a fairytale rooted in heartbreaking reality – there is no magic with which to save a child.” O’Farrell gives other traces of subconscious family influence from Shakespeare’s life on his writing, and it’s fun to speculate how Shakespeare might have created his fictional characters from pieces of his own life, as many writers do.

I was reluctant to read Hamnet during our own modern plague, thinking the book was a story of the plague in Shakespeare’s time or a regurgitation of the famous play. It was not. I waited for the paperback version, prompted by my good friend to read it – glad I did. Now I am thinking about rereading the play. Hamlet will never be the same when I think of Agnes, and his twin, Judith, and of course, the humanity of the Bard.